Some thoughts on the Electoral College

I just read Madison’s Federalist Paper #10. Very interesting stuff. At a high level, the purpose of electors is to mitigate the effect of “factions”, which he defines (all emphasis in block quotes is mine):

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

A p’shat interpretation though a contemporary lens would seem to be a strong argument in favor of the electors being unfaithful and voting against Trump. After all, he explicitly threatened the rights of several groups of citizens, and his authoritarian tendencies pose a threat to the “aggregate interests of the community.”

Indeed, it is common to say that the purpose of the Electoral College is to protect the public good from the irresponsible or uneducated will of the people, and that’s also true:

The effect of [a Republic], on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen, that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the People, will be more consonant to the public good, than if pronounced by the People themselves, convened for the purpose.

However, Madison’s actual concern, it seems, is that non–land-owning voters1 would overwhelm the landed class. He even explicitly calls out “an equal division of property” as exactly the type of “wicked project” a representative republic can protect against.

But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold, and those who are without property, have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern Legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the Government.

It’s also impossible to ignore the effects of media and technology. We are hardly a united country, but the divisions depend on sociological environment (racial, religious, and ethnic diversity, wealth, rural–urban, etc.), not proximity.

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States: A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it, must secure the National Councils against any danger from that source.

A conflagration can now easily spread across the continent.

Here in 2016 we have a situation where the Electoral College is about to vote for a candidate who is “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” when they are supposed to be the ones “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.” Therefore, it is easy to argue that they should vote counter to the will of the voters in their states. On the other hand, had Bernie Sanders been elected (if only!), someone reading the very same document could argue that the citizens whose rights are being infringed upon are the wealthy 1% whose property would be at risk of “[more] equal division”.

My take is that the threats to the Republic in the face of a Trump presidency are sufficient enough, and the adverse effects on the rights of citizens substantial enough, that the electors should vote for Hillary Clinton. The argument that a more left-leaning economic policy would infringe on the right of the 1% to hold their wealth breaks down because the effect would not be sufficiently “adverse”, and a better-functioning, more equitable economy is in “the true interest of their country.”

I’m sure there are other historical arguing for and against the Electoral College, but based on this one, I believe the electors should elect Hillary Clinton.

  1. Franchise was being slowly extended to non–land-owning white men in various states at the time. Wikipedia